Martyred family's 'unprecedented' beatification prompts theological reflection, pro-life prayers

Wiktoria Ulma is pictured in an undated photo with three of her children and the children of relatives outside the Ulma home in Markowa, a village in southeastern Poland. Wikotria, her husband, Józef, and their six children were executed March 24, 1944, by Nazis who discovered that the family had been sheltering eight Jews who had escaped internment by German occupying forces. Two of the Ulma girls, Stasia and Basia, are pictured in the middle near their mother, who is holding son Wlodzimierz. (OSV News photo/ courtesy National Remembrance Institute)

(OSV News) -- When the Ulma family is beatified Sept. 10 as martyrs who gave their lives to protect Jews during the Holocaust, it may be the first time the Catholic Church has beatified an entire, specific family together, as well as the first beatification of an unborn child.

Because of those circumstances, the Polish bishops have described this beatification as an "unprecedented" event, which experts say, has both pastoral and theological implications.

"The beatification of an unborn child provides the church with a powerful witness to the full personhood and dignity of every child, born or unborn," R. Jared Staudt, an instructor for the lay division of St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver, told OSV News.

In 1944, after discovering the eight Jewish people the Ulmas were hiding on their farm near Markowa, Poland, Nazi police executed them, followed by 44-year-old Józef and 32-year-old Wiktoria, who was advanced in her pregnancy, and their six other children -- Stanislawa, 8; Barbara, 7; Wladyslaw, 6; Franciszek, 4; Antoni, 3; and Maria, 2 -- as a warning to other families who might try to shelter Jews.

In 1995, Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, recognized Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma as Righteous Among the Nations, an honor for "non-Jews who took great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust."

Pope Francis signed the decree recognizing the Ulma family's martyrdom Dec. 17, 2022, his 86th birthday, paving the way for the Ulmas' beatification. For beatification, the church conducts a thorough investigation of the person's life and writings to determine whether he or she lived a life of heroic virtue, offered his or her life for another, or was killed for the sake of Jesus Christ.

According to Vatican News, "The children shared in the operative faith of their parents, while the unborn child in Wiktoria’s womb received a baptism of blood." Villagers who buried the bodies report that Wiktoria had begun to give birth during the massacre.

While many cases of beatification require the confirmation of a miracle attributed to that person's intercession, that is not the case for martyrs, such as the Ulma family. In those cases, the title "blessed" is immediately bestowed.

For canonization and the designation "saint," however, all "blesseds" need a church-recognized miracle attributed to their intercession that occurred after their beatification.

Józef and Wiktoria were initially part of a collective canonization process for a group of more than 100 Polish Catholics martyred during World War II initiated in 2003 and submitted to the Vatican in 2011 by the Diocese of Pelplin, Poland.

At the request of Archbishop Adam Szal of Przemysl, Poland, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints separated the Ulmas from the collective cause, and in 2017 transferred it to the Archdiocese of Przemysl, which includes the village of Markowa, for it to progress independently, and presumably, more quickly.

Under the Przemysl Archdiocese, the cause was expanded to the entire family and progressed to the Vatican with a question of whether it would -- or theologically could -- include Józef and Wiktoria's unborn, and therefore unbaptized, child.

The Ulma family's faith and Christian witness -- symbolized by Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan found underlined in their family Bible -- has attracted attention as potential patrons for pro-family and pro-life related causes.

Thomas Grenchik, executive director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he was "blown away" by the family's "incredible witness" and "the great risk they took, really laying down their lives to protect the lives of others."

"That, in and of itself, is a tremendous witness to the importance and sanctity of human life," he told OSV News. "What a gift it is to the church."

The Ulmas appear to be the first specified family to be beatified together, although other groups of martyrs, such as the Japanese Martyrs, included families.

Grenchik said that, with the Ulmas, having a family of saints -- including an unborn child -- to intercede for the church will likely appeal to Catholics whose intentions involve family life, including parents who have miscarried or lost a child, as well as the pro-life movement.

"This is another reaffirmation that the child in the womb is just as important as every other child and member of the family," he said.

One curious aspect of the Ulma family's beautification is that the name of this child is unknown, observed Catherine Cavadini, an associate teaching professor in theology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. "So, I can pray to this baby who wasn't born when he or she was killed, but what was their name? Do I pray to 'St. Baby'? ... There's a lot of interesting things in the process of beatification and canonization that are looking different in this case."

While saints aren't her professional area of study, Cavadini has become interested in the lives of the saints, or "sacred biography," and recently co-authored the forthcoming book "Saints: A Family Story."

"As my time teaching in the classroom has unfolded, I feel like I've come to see more and more the way in which theology and biography fit together because our whole goal in learning theology is to learn to live the things we profess," she told OSV News.

She roots the Ulma family's beatification in the changes made to the canonization process by St. John Paul II, both in canon law and by efforts to recognize more saints from the wider church. He canonized 482 saints and beatified 1,338 people, a stark contrast to the 300 saints canonized by his predecessors over the past 500 years.

Cavadini sees a connection between St. John Paul's quest to recognize saints and the theology of the body, as well as what the Ulmas' beatification says about the "gratuitousness" of God.

"He (St. John Paul) lived through a time in history in which he saw we need to remember what the human person is, and part of that is naming saints," she said. "If we're going to beatify this whole family, including this unborn child, what are we saying about this unborn child: This is a human being, this is a beautiful human being."

Pope Francis' beatification of the Ulmas' unborn child "is just the movement forward," she said. "It just makes sense."

The suggestion that the Ulmas' unborn child underwent a "baptism of blood" draws parallels to the Holy Innocents, the baby boys Herod the Great ordered murdered after the Wise Men did not return to tell him the identity of the Christ Child. While their actual number is disputed, they are considered to be martyrs for Jesus Christ and are commemorated by the Roman liturgical calendar on Dec. 28.

"Although unbaptized, (they) were martyred for the sake of Christ, without any specific intention of offering their lives," said Staudt, who also serves as content director for Exodus 90, and who has written about the significance of infant baptism. "The church has always taught that baptism is necessary for salvation, but also that the reality of baptism, as the forgiveness of original sin and the imparting of sanctifying grace, can be imparted by God outside of the sacrament."

Theologians have long wrestled with the question of what happens to children who die without baptism, and therefore in the state of original sin, but who have not committed sins of their own doing. Some speculated that without the sanctifying grace of baptism, children who die in this state go to limbo, a place of the dead where they would neither suffer nor see God.

In 2007, the International Theological Commission, a consultative body to the Holy See, published a non-magisterial statement titled "The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized" that traced the development of the theory of limbo, and explored the possibility of God granting babies sanctifying grace apart from sacramental baptism. It concluded "there are theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved and brought into eternal happiness, even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in Revelation."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states of babies who die without baptism that "the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them."

Because it is presumed the Ulmas' unborn child received sanctifying grace through martyrdom, his or her beatification doesn't actually challenge the concept of limbo, said Alan Fimister, assistant professor of theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary based in Cromwell, Connecticut, who, as director of the Dialogos Institute, convened a 2017 colloquium exploring limbo.

He emphasized, however, that while the church can hope that unbaptized babies -- whether by water or "by blood" -- may receive sanctifying grace by other means, the church also cannot teach that it knows that to be the case for a particular individual, and baptism is the one sure way to be cleansed of original sin.

The beatification of an unborn child who could not have been baptized by water "is a significant moment," Fimister said.

While Fimister said the Ulma baby's beatification may not affect live questions around limbo, he sees it engaging a different theological debate going back to St. Augustine regarding whether it can be known if someone has indeed received salvation apart from sacramental baptism after Pentecost. Fimister said it appears that St. Augustine, at the end of his life, thought not. The Ulma child's beatification, by contrast, would suggest so.

"So, the beatification implies that this unborn child received baptism of blood in the womb," Fimister said. "If that's accepted, that that's correct, which one should presume that it is, … then that would mean that Augustine's later opinion … is wrong: That someone who definitely wasn't baptized in the name of the Trinity with water, after Pentecost, was saved."

Meanwhile, Fimister noted, unlike canonizations, beatifications are not considered infallible. If the Ulma child is canonized in the future, that would be a clear affirmation that post-Pentecost baptism by blood has occurred, and it's not just a theoretical possibility.

Both Fimister and Staudt cautioned that just because God may choose to act outside of the church's sacraments doesn't diminish the essential nature of baptism.

"I have found that many Catholics do not take the reality of original sin seriously today and even delay the baptism of their children for long periods," Staudt said. "Original sin means that we are not born with sanctifying grace and need to receive it as a gift from God. The unborn child of the Ulma family received the graces of baptism through martyrdom."

He said this should not be taken as a reason to delay giving children "the great gift of baptism."

"We should do all that we can to ensure the salvation of our children," he said, "and not make any presumptions."


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